Knowledge Exchange

Anxiety in Older Adults

January 2020 blog post written by Gail Hawley Knowles, R.N., BA, MHs 

Imagine waking up each morning dreading the start of the new day.
Worrying about something so much that you are unable to think about anything else.
Feeling restless, tense and agitated about an upcoming event or one that may never occur. 
Being afraid of a weather event happening half a continent away.

I know this is how people with extreme anxiety wake up.

Older adults can often experience anxiety. Haven’t you felt anxious and worried when facing new situations, or experienced distressing events? Likely, you became anxious not knowing what was in store for you.  This is a normal response to stressful situations. For older adults with uncontrolled anxiety, receiving a new health diagnosis, facing financial worries or thinking of not being able to cope in their home any longer are paralyzing thoughts.

Excessive anxiety can interfere with everyday life. Common triggers may be financial uncertainty, death of family members and friends, and loss of independence. There may be a reluctance to disclose feelings with a health care provider out of other unfounded fears such as worry about dementia and loss of driving license.

There are many symptoms of anxiety. Symptoms range from physical experiences such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, sweating and chest pain, to mental changes like confusion, irrational thought, forgetfulness. Anxiety can also cause changes in sleep patterns such as sleeping too much or too little. Some people can experience a change in eating habits leading to weight loss or gain. People experiencing anxiety may also avoid doing activities, going to social events or other situations that contribute to anxiousness or trigger panic attacks.

If not treated, symptoms of anxiety can contribute physical disabilities, memory problems, and reduced quality of life.  They may also be at greater risk of developing other mental health complications, such as depression and thoughts of suicide.

When the anxiety is disproportionate to the triggering situation, everyday life is disrupted, and quality for the older person and their family is affected, anxiety treatment should be considered. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an appropriate choice for treating generalized anxiety. If medications are used, use in moderation and consider their side effects. “The other thing is that if you rely solely on medication to manage depression or anxiety, for example, you have done nothing to train the mind, so that when you come off the medication, you are just as vulnerable to a relapse as though you had never taken the medication.” -Daniel Goleman, author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.


About the author: Gail is the Manager of the Centre for Studies in Aging and Health (CSAH) at Providence Care Hospital in Kningston, Ontario. A Registered Nurse, Gail holds a leadership role in collaborating with other members of the CSAH team. Gail coordinates, develops and facilitates the creation of linkages, partnerships and networks, resources (people, products and funds), and promotes effective change management processes related to aging and health.